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Memorial Day tribute: Veteran's journey begins, ends at Sheppard

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Valerie Hosea
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs
Master Sgt. Otto Havins was perhaps one of few who began their military career in the U.S. Army Air Corps at Sheppard in the early 1940s and retired when it was an Air Force base.

Certainly those years of transition from an extension of the U.S. Army to an independent military service is chocked full of stories. But for Sergeant Havins, the most compelling aspects of his career came between his times at Sheppard.

He captured his thoughts in 1988 about his career that spanned World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. He passed away in 1992.

Gearing up for war

Sergeant Havins completed basic training at Sheppard Field in 1943 and then aerial gunner and radio operator-mechanic school before he was assigned to a bomber crew for duties in Europe. His B-17 Flying Fortress flight crew was then sent to Alexandria Army Air Base, La., for combat training.

"Our pilot, or skipper, I thought, was the best pilot the Army Air Corps had ever trained," he recalled. "I for one would have flown to hell and back with him without any reservations."

An arduous hop-scotching trip over the Atlantic put the crew at Stone, England, the location of an Army staging area for bombers. The crew was split up for a 10-day refresher training course.

Once back together, they had one thought on their collective mind - do the job and go home.

"Our thoughts were to fly 25 missions in a hurry and rotate back to the states," Sergeant Havins said.

Fate had a different plan for the crew.

First and last mission

Sergeant Havins said the crew finally received word that they were going out on a mission. With this new knowledge, he said the crew decided to call it a day early to get much-needed rest.

"But it was just time wasted to try and get any sleep," he said. "The anticipation of what tomorrow might bring - that first mission - and a million other thoughts made sleeping difficult."

Thoughts weren't the only thing raining down that kept him awake. Sergeant Havins said the air base was bombed that night, rattling everyone and taking any opportunity of sleep away.

The B-17s finally took to the air the next day with their sights set on Leipzig, Germany. The crews original aircraft was shelved for maintenance and was assigned to "The Round Tripper," a name Sergeant Havins and the crew had hoped would live up to its name.

Take off was flawless for The Round Tripper, but the success the crew enjoyed from getting off the ground would soon plummet as the aircraft took on damage. Sergeant Havins said the crew was getting ready for its bombing run. Chaos erupted with a violent shutter and men and equipment were thrown about as the plane went into a spin.

After the pilots regained control of the aircraft, Sergeant Havins said he learned what had happened.

"We had collided with another B-17 that was flying directly above us," he recalled. "Our stabilizer hit the side of the other plane."

Time to bail

The B-17 survived the violent collision with another aircraft, but it was far from surviving the mission. The crew was separated from the larger formation with no fighter support nearby. What was patrolling the skies was a bomber crews' nightmare - enemy fighters.

The fighters took out two of the B-17s four engines and inflicted other damage to the already-wounded Round Tripper. The pilot steered the plane to the west, hoping to get to the English Channel before having to ditch the plane or bail out. But the doomed aircraft wouldn't make it.

After a third engine failed, the pilot ordered the crew to prepare to bail out. Sergeant Havins said after the order came, he was the first to exit the aircraft.

When his feet hit the French ground, his first thought was to evade capture and find his crew mates.

Trek across France

Sergeant Havins and members of his crew spent the next several months moving across the French countryside, shedding their military uniforms for civilian clothes and evading the enemy and trying to get back to England.

There were some close calls, such as arriving in Reims, France, to make contact with a resistance organization.

"The driver could not make contact with the organization we were to be turned over to," he said. "There we were, sitting in a car on the main street with German troops all around."

Finally, on June 6, 1944, Sergeant Havins and his crew mates were told about the Normandy invasion and the push to drive the Germans out of France. But it wasn't until late August that they would see the Army's 2nd Armored Division, he said.

Long road home

Now that Sergeant Havins and his crew were reunited with fellow Americans, their focus was getting back to England and on their way back to the United States.

Much like their jaunt through the French countryside, this journey, too, would be long and arduous.

Because the Army couldn't validate who they were, the crew was taken to Army Intelligence for interrogation. Each crewmember was assigned an interrogator to conduct an interview. The same thing would take place the following day.

"The next day, we, again, went through the interrogation bit, but with a different person," Sergeant Havins recalled. "I suppose they thought we would get our story mixed up, but I guess the stories convinced them that we were truly American Airmen."

The crew eventually made their way to England where they boarded a plane to return home and some earned vacation time.

"After my leave, I was separated from the Army Air Corps," Sergeant Havins said. "In 1950, the Korean War was going good and one day when I came home, I had a telegram notifying me that I was being recalled to active duty."

The sergeant stayed in the Air Force until 1969 when he retired at Sheppard Air Force Base - the place where his journey began